Dirty IT: The Moral Side Of The Tech Lifecycle

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You can argue whether to replace your IT every three years or ever five years. But, says Peter Judge, if you dispose of your kit in the developing world, maybe you shouldn’t replace it at all!

Sustainable IT gets a good press because, by and large, anything that makes IT more efficient also makes it cheaper. Using less electricity will cut the bills as well as reducing the carbon footprint.

But what happens when sustainability starts asking other, more awkward questions?

The move to end “Dirty IT” could do just that, because it asks IT buyers to take more into consideration than their costs and power bills.

Yesterday, Government Green ICT champion Catalina McGregor, called on public sector IT managers to put an end to Dirty IT by paying attention to what happens to their IT kit after they have finished with it, and sending less to the developing world, because the hazardous chemicals it conatins will harm people there.

The challenge, at the Government ICT conference, came immediately after Cabinet Office minister Angela Smith challenged mangers to keep IT kit in service for longer.

Cutting costs, reducing footprint… or saving lives?

Superficially, the two women were calling for the same thing – consuming less IT – but Smith’s case was based on getting better value for money, and cutting the carbon footprint of an organisation, while McGregor demands a consideration of the global human impact of IT.

Companies are “sweating their IT assets” for longer, extend refresh cycles from three years even up to five years. as a way to save money and reduce their environmental footprint, but the approach could easily be derailed by considering a slightly bigger picture than saving hardware costs.

Vendors like Dell can point to a much higher power efficiency of new equipment, based on processors such as Intel’s Nehalem. If power usage is taken into account, these pay for themselves, and reduce a company’s electricity usage. At Dell’s Nehalem launch, users such as Cambridge University claimed to be saving money – and reducing their in-company energy use – by replacing hardware that is only two years old. 

It is quite possible, then, to argue against sweating assets, on a plain financial level. It’s even possible to argue that, for instance by turning up the temperature in the data centre, it makes sense to deliberately wear out equipment more quickly

The bigger picture

But there is a bigger picture still, if one considers the whole energy lifecycle of the hardware outside the end user company – including its manufacture. Most servers, even if they are used quite instensively, use less energy in their entire (three-year) lifetime than in the whole manufacturing process.

On this basis, replacing IT kit quickly is much less beneficial – though it begs the question of how laws and taxes should be altered to encourage longer usage.

But the campaign against Dirty IT takes us to an even bigger picture. Even if the full cost replacing IT are added up and make sense, and even if the overall environmental impact could be made to balance out, we’d be left with the human cost. 

IT disposal evidently costs lives. How will that be factored in?

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